My project for the new year has been to make an attempt at a theology dealing with mental health. While the church has gotten better at recognizing mental disorders and being a healthy part of their treatment, what has stuck me is how there really is not a whole lot of theological statement or reflections about it. My hope is to perhaps, in some small way, fill that void, in the hopes that those much more wise will improve upon what I will be writing here, and in numerous more postings, over the next bit. When beginning this, I thought that the idea of a theological exploration of mental health and wholeness would be a fairly simple thing, but as I read, and delved deeper, I realized that not only was it not very simple, there were no new answers (not a surprise to me), but there were a lot of very old ones taking us back to the time of creation itself. This is not a medical offering, though I will, on occasion, use medical findings and treatments as examples, so it should in no way be read as a replacement for professional care. I hope that, if you are willing, you will continue to read this, and following posts, and share them with those you know who might think upon such things sharing with me their thoughts and opinions that I may ponder them. So, without any further disclaimers, let us begin this journey from the place where all good journeys start: “In the beginning, God created the Heaven’s and the Earth”.
Fundamental to my exploration has been the creation narrative. To follow along here, you are not required to believe in a particular method of creation, be it young earth, old earth, theistic evolution, or what have you, but to simply hold on to and believe the eternal truth, that God is creator. In this simple truth, Saint Irenaeus (you will hear from him a lot in these pieces, so some background on him may help) begins his defense of the Christian faith against the Gnostic beliefs of his day, as well as establishing a beautiful trinitarian theology that has some fairly serious ramifications to us as the pinnacle of creation. Irenaeus describes the very act of creation as being trinitarian in origin. “In this way, then, it is demonstrated One God, Father, uncreated, invisible, Creator of all, above whom there is no other God, and after whom there is no other God. And as God is verbal, therefore, He made created things by the Word; and God is Spirit, so that He adorned all things by the Spirit, as the prophet also says, “By the Word of the Lord were the heavens established, and all the power by his Spirit”. Thus, since the Word ‘establishes,’ that is, works bodily and confers existence, while the Spirit arranges and forms the various ‘powers’, so rightly is the Son called the Word and the Spirit the Wisdom of God.” (Irenaeus “The Apostolic Preaching”) In this small paragraph, beautifully worded (I am a little jealous of its simple beauty if I am being honest), the establishment of the trinity as present, and responsible, for creation, in three parts, equal in power, each performing an essential duty. Irenaeus separates these duties into the source of all creation, The Father, that which brings creation into existence, The Son (The Word), and the ordering of creation into a cogent whole possessing meaning, The Spirit. Irenaeus would also describe The Son and The Spirit as the hands of God to illustrate a point, and also to speak to us today. We use the same language and idea when we describe ourselves as the hands and feet of Christ. As an interesting note, this idea is rendered in 2 Enoch from the Pseudepigrapha and the language has similar meaning and structure to Genesis 1:27 as well as to Wisdom of Solomon 6:7. As the work of 2 Enoch is used by Irenaeus in other areas, it has been a speculation of mine that it influenced him here as well, but that is a different rabbit hole for a different day.
Humans however, after this referred to as “man” as a generic term and not a term to denote gender, have a special place in creation. Man is created possessing the Imago Dei. We all talk a lot about the Image of God, but few of us, it seems to me, have any sort of understanding of what that is and what that means. Part of that is simply that we have lost, or tossed aside, the wisdom of the ancients. A brief exploration at thoughts regarding this becomes necessary. Ancient Jewish scholars such as Saadia Gaon and Philo would argue that being made in the image of God had no physical aspect, instead meaning simply that it meant the God had bestowed special honor upon man as the pinnacle of creation. To them, the image of God was not a tangible idea other than man was different, and above, all of creation. It was more of an idea to be accepted instead of a mystery to be explored and understood. A Platonic understanding made the body a transitory vessel of no real importance, the Gnostic understanding was that matter was evil, but that Spirit was good, thus the image of God was spirit and only spirit was good, others would claim the Image of God was the whole person, leading to a type of anthropomorphism of God binding Him to one form of matter alone. Enter Irenaeus, and a very new understanding of the Image of God.
Irenaeus, understanding and knowing the flaws of the various interpretation of the Imago Dei, would speak of the Imago Dei as the image and likeness of God in the same way as Genesis did. Irenaeus speaks of the image and likeness of God in this way: “Now God shall be glorified in His handiwork, fitting it so as to be conformable to, and modeled after, His own Son. For by the hands of the Father, that is by the Son and the Holy Spirit, man, and not a part of man, was made in the likeness of God.” (Against Heresies) Saint Paul would support this assertion, though before Irenaeus, when he, in the epistles to the Corinthians and Colossians, would write that Christ is indeed the image of God. (Second Corinthians 4:4 and Colossians 1:15). We are, in effect, the image of the image. For Irenaeus, this was the physical image. Our bodies and human form as designed after the eternally begotten and eternally incarnate Son of God. This understanding allows us to avoid the trap of binding God to our form, thus avoiding the anthropomorphic tendency. Adam, being the first crated human, becomes not the archetype of humanity as many of us think him, but rather the first created image of The Image.
The likeness of God then becomes our spiritual self. At the time of creation, this was simply the way it was intended, but today we recognize this as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the faithful, but more on that later. Now the temptation is to divide the body and spirit (image and likeness of God) into two separate things that are independent of each other, but that is not what Irenaeus does at all as this was central to the heresy of the Gnostic faith. To Irenaeus, Adam, as the first image bearer, has these two parts, body and spirit (image and likeness), of the same whole both contained in harmony. In God’s plan of creation, the two are never intended to be separated. This is key to the nature of man, as God intended, and we must, at all costs, resist the temptation of artificially trying to separate the two as it relates to God’s intent in creation. The image and likeness of God are reflected in God’s two hands, as Irenaeus described them (The Son, and The Spirit), and tied intimately to our creation as God intended at creation.
There is a third aspect of our creation that should be mentioned, the ability to reason. This too separates us from the rest of creation. We can form complex thoughts and ideas. We can rationalize and use logic to come to greater understanding of the world around us. I think that you get the point. This third aspect of our creation completes the trinity of human creation, not to be confused with The Trinity. Just as the Creator God is only properly understood and explained through The Trinity, for mankind to be properly understood, as the created being at the time of creation, the trinity of this creation must also be understood. The very idea and structure of the Trinity is found through out all of creation. For Irenaeus this is even reflected in the natural world as there is indeed the realm of the physical, that which we can touch, the realm of the spiritual (God, the Holy Spirit, the adversary, etc.), and finally the very nature of God in the form of the natural law that governs the function of the universe. For us, as humans, the three parts of our created selves, the physical, the spiritual, the rational, must be in harmony for us to be as God intended us from the beginning.
This wraps up the first part of moving toward a proper theology of mental health and wholeness. I realize that it may seem basic as it is a reflection upon creation, before the fall, but to understand the very nature of humanity from that time as God intended, and thus to be able to understand what proper mental health and wholeness is, and how we can work toward it, we must start with the blueprint (Christ) and proceed from the first creation (Adam). We find then that, for us to be able to exist as God intended, and indeed as we will exist upon the return of Christ to usher in the Kingdom in full, there must be a harmony of image and likeness of God as well as our ability to reason. From a theological stand point then, we must conclude that a theology of mental health and wholeness involves bringing, to the best of our ability, those three parts of our essential nature back into harmony with one another, and with God. Next we will explore the fall from grace, the effect that this has upon us, original sin and what it is and isn’t, and how all of that comes together as it relates to mental health and wholeness.